By Gabrielle Bennett Senior Content Specialist
Updated February 01, 2024

Indigenous people of North America are a vital key to unlocking the history of the continent. The people are hardworking, connected to the planet, and come with centuries of treating the land with dignity. History taught throughout the continent often begins with the areas' colonization. But the Natives made their home there long before 1492. Some records state that the Indigenous people were in North America for as long as 15,000 years ago, with the potential to be actually 20,000. With so much of Native history lost, it’s important to teach baby where they came from and the legacy they can build, just like their ancestors. A Native American baby girl, boy, or gender-neutral name inspired by some Indigenous heroes could be the perfect start to baby’s journey.

Alyssa Wapanatâhk, b. 2002

Though she is the youngest of this list, Alyssa Wapanatâhk wasted no time fighting for her people. A Canadian Cree woman, Wapanatâhk is already an accomplished actor, writer, and director. She wrote and directed The Boy & The Braid, a story of a Native Cree man living life in a modern world while balancing with his heritage. But more recently, she was cast as Tiger Lily in Peter Pan & Wendy. Wapanatâhk’s credits may be a short list right now, but when your name means “first star in the sky” or “morning star,” it’s not hard to believe she’ll be carving out a bright path all of her life.

Quannah Chasinghorse, b. 2002

An Alaskan Indigenous woman, Chasinghorse has worked to kick open the door to a notoriously challenging industry. She is a young model and activist using her influencer platform to shine a lot on Indigenous fashion and Indigenous rights. Her activism focal points are primarily climate justice and sustainability and the equal rights of Natives and their sovereignty. She is a member of the Hän Gwich'in and Oglala Lakota tribes and is known as a land protector, fighting the fight given to her by her ancestors. She was listed in Teen Vogue’s Top 21 Under 21, and with the platform she’s built for herself, she’ll undoubtedly be making a few more lists like that along her path to equal rights.

Cierra Fields, b. 1999

Cierra Fields is yet another young activist making waves. She hails from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and in her last year of high school, Fields worked relentlessly to raise the age of consent from 14 to 16 within the Cherokee tribe with the help of Attorney General Todd Hembree. Since then, she has continued her fight to stop the violence against Native women, even hosting the Charles Memorial Native Youth Summit. In 2013, she was named a Champion of Change by the White House due to her tireless efforts to improve the quality of life in Native American communities. Her work there predominantly consisted of healthy living promotion, where it relates to reducing the risk of cancer, something she’s already survived herself. As of 2022, Fields sits on the Board of Directors for the National Urban Indian Alliance.

Forrest Goodluck, b. 1998

Though it’s easy to give the spotlight to Forrest Goodluck’s time on screen with Leo DiCaprio, his acting career has already emphasized some critical issues where it relates to his people. In The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Goodluck’s character was named Adam Red Eagle, who identified as a two-spirit. In this film, Red Eagle was sent to a conversion therapy camp, tackling horrific concepts and the need for support in the queer community everywhere. On his father’s side, Goodluck is Diné, and on his mother’s, he’s Hidatsa, Mandan, and Tsimshian.

Tommy Orange, b. 1982

A writer who made a splash from the beginning of his career, Tommy Orange is a force to be reckoned with. His debut novel was There There, which detailed the experiences of Indigenous Americans living an urban life. But it was in defiance of the common stereotype of Natives only existing in the past. He’s spoken out against the preconceived notions that to be Native is to wear a headdress or to look a certain way, and his writings have been a vehicle for changing that narrative. Orange’s novel won multiple awards, including the prize for Best First Book in the National Book Circle Awards, New York Times bestseller list, and the shortlist for Andrew Carnegie Medals.

Sharice Davids, b. 1980

Sharice Davids is no stranger to making history. She is a queer, Ho-Chunk Native American and Congressperson. She was one of the two first Native American women voted into Congress and the first LGBTQIA+ member to be elected in the state of Kansas. Throughout her political career, Davids has regularly fought for the rights and living conditions of Indigenous people in the United States. She focuses on boosting the state of living in regard to community development and economic growth to enable Natives to succeed in the current climate.

Sarah Deer, b. 1972

A member of the Muscogee Creek tribe and a professor at the University of Kansas, Sarah Deer is a determined and prolific writer and lawyer. At the University of Kansas, Deer is a Professor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and in the School of Public Affairs and Administration. Throughout her career, she’s made the fight for the rights of victims of sexual and domestic violence her defining characteristic. In 2013, she played a large role in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. This act was to expand tribal jurisdiction for the prosecution of non-Natives for domestic and sexual violence. Shortly after this, her book The Beginning and End of Rape was published in 2015. The subject matter was closely tied to her activism and compared destructions in the modern era.

Lila Downs, b. 1968

If you’ve never heard the dulcet tones of Lila Downs, you’re sincerely missing out. She’s a Mixtec woman from Oaxaca, and she’s a singer-songwriter. Famous for mixing together the popular styles of the time and her own heritage, Downs is responsible for making plenty of Native languages heard in homes all around the United States. She sang in Indigenous languages, such as Mayan, Mixtec, Purépecha, and Zapotec, and repeatedly received acclaim for it. She won multiple Latin Grammys as well as a Grammy for Best Regional Mexican Music Album called Pecados Y Milagros. Another album, Al Chile, was a service to her people, and she honored Native cultures and the lives of Mexican women and migrants through her music.

Irene Bedard, b. 1967

Irene Bedard has long been famous for her acting career. Perhaps her most famous role was the titular lead of Pocahontas, for which she was the model and voice actor. In much more recent years, however, she’s had prominent roles in Westworld, Longmire, The New World, and The Tree of Life. Her parents are Iñupiaq Eskimo and Cree, and she’s Alaskan-born herself. In each role she performs, she takes her task of representation of Indigenous peoples seriously.

Kent Monkman, b. 1965

A Cree artist known for displacing white-washed views by adding Indigenous people to the pieces, Kent Monkman knows how to make an impact. They are a proud member of the queer community and is known as a two-spirit. Two-spirits are individuals who don’t ascribe to the specific roles given to men and women in their tribes, but instead are given roles distinct from them. The term “two-spirit” comes from the notion of a person possessing both a masculine and a feminine spirit. This part of Monkman’s identity has influenced their paintings and large-scale installation work, involving a fresh perspective on commonly seen sights.

Audra Simpson, b. 1962

A political anthropologist and Mohawk Native, Audra Simpson is a fighter for the rights of Indigenous people. Her weapon of choice is education, and she does so from her lectern at Columbia University, where she’s a Professor of Anthropology. Her focus as an Indigenous feminist is on the “politics of recognition.” Her published work, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, identifies gaps in the public knowledge of Indigenous presence. She actively dismantles stereotypes, educating the public on tribal community and national identity.

Deb Haaland, b. 1960

Deb Haaland is a Congressperson representing New Mexico and was one of the first two Native Americans to hold a Congress position. She is a Laguna Pueblo Native and, as such, has a known open-door policy for Indigenous people. She makes it known that, no matter what tribe they represent or what district they’re from, she will hear out issues relating to the disproportionate struggle of Indigenous people. As a congressperson, Haaland’s sponsored legislation has sought to fight environmental pollution, improve the vote-by-mail system, and give more autonomy to the Indigenous people in their homelands.

Winona LaDuke, b. 1959

Winona LaDuke is a highly educated and highly passionate Indigenous woman. She is an Objibwe Tribe member, writer, activist, and founder; each step she’s taken in her career has been in service of underrepresented Indigenous cultures or climate change. She founded the Indigenous Women's Network, the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP), and co-founded Honor the Earth with the Indigo Girls. Her fight for climate justice comes from the determined background of a Harvard graduate. She studied native economic development and graduated in 1982, shortly after forming the WELRP. She continues to fight for education and land-owning rights to this day and has even pursued a place in politics. But alongside these fights, LaDuke continues to demand equal rights and autonomy for Indigenous women and the structural systemic changes that need to occur in society.

Louise Erdrich, b. 1954

A truly prolific and award-winning writer, Louise Erdrich has made a name for herself and represented Native Americans thoroughly. She has written novels, children’s books, poetry, and nonfiction to great acclaim. For her novels Love Medicine and LaRose, Erdrich received two National Book Critics Circle Awards. In 2014, she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, balancing the two sides of being Native with care and grace. She is known for writing about subjects close to home, between the Ojibwe Natives in the northern midwest and the Turtle Mountain Band, she shines a light on hard truths and injustices. Her book, The Night Watchmen, detailed specifically her grandfather’s experience with Congress’s attempt to terminate recognition of the Turtle Mountain Band—the tribe she’s a part of today.

Nathan Phillips, b. 1954

A long-standing member of the Native American activist community, Nathan Phillips is a consistent agent of change in the fight for equal rights. He was the Director of the Native Youth Alliance (NYA), a leader of multiple protests, and a war veteran. The NYA is dedicated to upholding the traditional and spiritual ways of Native culture for future generations. After his directorial time, he helped lead the Standing Rock protests, which were fighting against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. He also, more recently, took part in the Lincoln Memorial Confrontation in Washington, DC, in 2019. His activism has been relentless and inspiring for decades, showing future generations what they can accomplish by standing up for what’s right.

Joy Harjo, b. 1951

Joy Harjo is most prominently known as the first Native American poet laureate. But it takes years of hard work to become an overnight success, and Harjo is no exception. She’s been writing since 1973, creating collected works like In Mad Love and War and Secrets From the Center of the World. Her pieces center around confronting stereotypes of Indigenous people. She regularly speaks about the necessary dismantling of Natives as fantasy characters and acknowledgment of diverse communities of Native Americans. She has been a proud member of the Muscogee tribe since she was 19 years old, and her work has been invaluable to the cause of equality.

Chrystos, b. 1946

Another poet activist is Chrystos. They are a two-spirit of the Menominee tribe. Their poetry explores difficult subjects for the sake of shining a light on the relentlessness of systemic oppression. Themes like colonialism, genocide, queerness, and violence against Native Americans are all explored in their work. Their experimental takes on poetry involve thoughtful inclusion of cliches and other colloquial devices to marry oral traditions with the written word. As a queer Native, Chrystos also takes the opportunity to shed light on the different experiences between cultures and their life as a two-spirit.

Sacheen Littlefeather, 1946–2022

Sacheen Littlefeather is known for her multiple appearances in the limelight. Notably, her Emmy-award-winning involvement in Dancing in America: Song for Dead Warriors and her speech at the 1973 Academy Awards were her first claims to fame. After Marlon Brando turned down his award for Best Actor, Littlefeather was given the stage, where she passionately spoke out against the portrayal of Native Americans in cinema. She is Native from her father’s line, coming from the White Mountain Apache and Yaqui tribes. Throughout her life, she was instrumental in increasing Indigenous representation on screen, thanks to organizations like the National American Indian Performing Arts Registry.

Jimi Hendrix, 1942–1970

Thanks to his Cherokee grandmother, Jimi Hendrix was a Native American. However, Hendrix was primarily known as a Black icon in the music industry, until more recently, when his family decided to make more of his origins well-known. For his soulful renditions and mix of jazz, rock, and soul, Hendrix flipped the music world upside down—much like his guitar! He enlisted in the army in 1961 but was discharged in ‘62. He rocked the nation, singing of peace and revolution and plenty of other mind-bending concepts. He died tragically young of asphyxiation, but his legacy lives on still.

Madonna Thunder Hawk, b. 1940

A woman hell-bent on getting the rights of her people, Madonna Thunder Hawk has been fighting the good fight for decades. She’s been an activist in the Civil Rights movement, a leader in the American Indian Movement, an organizer in the Dakota Access pipeline protest, a liaison for the Lakota People’s Law Project, and co-founder of the American Indian Organization of Women of All Red Nations. Her focuses have often been dedicated to gaining the rights of Indigenous women and families, climate justice, and the protection of lands.
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